Fielding Hall, a British official in nineteenth-century Burma, once asked for a bill at what he had taken to be a village restaurant, and found that he had been fed as a guest in a private house. Little did he know that the simple-minded folk were just practicing one of Buddhism's fundamental ethical imperatives - the gesture of unconditioned giving.
Indeed, the primary activity which a Buddhist learns to develop is unselfish sharing, which forms a basis for further moral and spiritual development. If the key to any religion is held in its stories, Buddhist literature, abounding in such narratives, gives ample evidence of the high esteem this particular trait is held in.
Dana or generosity is encouraged as an essential attitude, which is the best way of offsetting the human tendency of individual self-centeredness and attachment. It is also regarded as a basic form of renunciation, open to both - the layperson and the monk.
Thus says the ancient Buddhist Canon:
'Like a jar of water, when overturned, empties all its contents, never to receive them back, thus should one give away without regard to money, fame, one's progeny, or even our own body to
anybody who approaches us with a wish list.' (Introduction to Jataka)
Throughout the Jataka Stories, the first injunction when any
discourse is delivered is to give donations to the poor, food to
guests and support and honor to holy men. In Hinduism too, the
gift of food is considered especially virtuous because:
'Life is sustained by food and food is life, thus, to give food
to others is like giving life to them.' (Mahabharata: 13.63.26)
The hospitality has to be all embracing, and the guest, whoever
she or he may be, has to be welcomed with open arms:
Even if the lowliest of the low arrives as a guest, the
householder should welcome him. (Mahabharata: 14.92)
In the timeless text, The Bhagavata Purana , an instructive
episode is narrated where Krishna, playing with his famished
friends, is addressed thus by the latter:
"O Krishna, like you have annihilated mighty demons tormenting
us, so also save us from these pangs of hunger."
Krishna, ever the fulfiller of his devotees' needs, answered:
"Go to the nearby hall where learned Brahmins are performing a
great ritual to attain heaven. Tell them that you have been sent
by me and request them to give you some cooked rice."
Obeying the instructions, the young lads went over to the
hermitage, prostrated them before the priests and requested:
"Venerable saints, we are the servants of Lord Krishna who is
playing with us nearby. He is now hungry and has asked us to seek
food from you - the true knowers of Dharma."
Ignorantly engaged in toilsome rituals and acts of everyday life,
yet vainglorious of their textual wisdom, the Brahmins, though
they heard the solicitations of the lord, who out of Grace send
his friends for food to them, did not heed to their needs.
Disappointed, they reported what had happened to Krishna, who
laughing out aloud said: "Now go to the affectionate wives of
these Brahmins and ask the same of them. They will definitely
feed you to your heart's content."
To those pious women the lads respectfully submitted:
"Salutations to you virtuous ladies. We have been deputed by Lord
Krishna to seek food for our hungry group."
No sooner had they heard that the lord was so near, giving them
an opportunity to fulfill his and his followers' hunger, the
Brahmin women immediately gathered sumptuous food in large
vessels and like rivers rushing towards the ocean, eagerly
reached out to Krishna welcoming him through the gates of their
eyes, establishing him into their hearts.
Krishna first made his friends feast on the food and only afterwards did he partake it himself.
Later, the saints, remembering their uncharitable behavior,
lamented: "Alas, we have disregarded the lord who has taken the
form of a human being. All our knowledge, vows and pure birth are
useless, because due to pride, we were unable to recognize the
divinity in humanity." (Bhagavata Purana: 10.23)
This simple narrative has a profound implication, alerting us to
the realization that if we are lucky enough to have somebody
needful at our threshold, it is perhaps god himself who has
condescended to bless us. Thus is it said:
'With a guest come all the gods. If a guest is honored, so are
they; if he goes away disappointed, they are disappointed too.'
Significantly, the word used for guest in Sanskrit is 'atithi',
'tithi' meaning date and the prefix 'a' negating it. Therefore,
one who arrives unexpectedly without prior date or appointment is
the guest extolled here:
'An athithi is an occasion for heaven, and all gods are satisfied when he is satisfied.' (Mahabharata: 14.92)
The Bhagavad Gita calls such an unsolicited opportunity to perform one's duty (made available by chance and not effort), a direct gateway to heaven (2.32).
Our experience of the world is one of interdependence, and we do not exist as isolated elements but are related to each other as many strands of a fabric. Hindu and Buddhist texts provide structures through which trustworthy views of this experience can be developed, recognizing that such interdependence is not just of the nature of the body, but at a deeper level, of human social life. Such an outlook involves not only accommodation, but also slowly but steadily cultivates in us the ideal of renunciation, defined as the abandonment of material things over to someone
else, and which is a necessary first step towards Nirvana or Moksha.
In fact, the quality of giving is one of the virtues perfected
over numerous lifetimes by Buddha in his bodhisattva phase,
before the final culmination into Nirvana, after he has given up
all attachment. This is symbolized by the sacrifice of his own
body when he has nothing else to offer an unexpected guest. In
the Jataka Tale entitled 'Shasha Jataka' (story no. 316), the
Buddha is born as a rabbit, and unable to present any other food
to a Brahmin come home, roasted himself in a fire. Later of
course, it turns out that his guest is but god testing his
A similar message is given by the story of King Shibi in the Jataka Mala, who having given away all his wealth, was still moved enough by small insects hovering around him, and inflicted several wounds on his body to feed the mosquitoes. In another narrative from the same text, the bodhisattva throws himself in front of a hungry tigress, who, otherwise, was on the verge of consuming her own cubs. This is however not the only instance of the Buddha-To-Be sacrificing his physical body partly or fully and numerous tales abound in Buddhist Canonical literature
illustrating this theme.
In the ancient Samadhiraja-Sutra, Buddha's principal disciple
Ananda asks how a bodhisattva can cheerfully suffer the loss of
his limbs etc and not feel any pain when he mutilates himself for
the good of others.
The Buddha explained that intense compassion for mankind and the
love of Bodhi (spiritual awakening), sustain and inspire a
bodhisattva towards heroism, just as worldly men are inclined to
enjoy sensual pleasures even when their bodies are burning with
Before being so advanced spiritually so as to make these supreme
sacrifices, the bodhisattva, in many of his live prior to
Buddhahood, continued to cultivate the perfection (paramita) of
Dana, experiencing greater pleasure in giving than those
receiving it. When the action of giving is thus internalized in
so profound a manner, becoming almost one's second, nay primary
nature, Krishna compares such unselfish magnanimity with the
inspiring life of trees:
"Have a look at these great blessed trees, who live only for the
welfare of others, themselves facing the severity of stormy
winds, heavy showers, heat and snow, all the while protecting us
from them. The birth of trees is the most blessed in the world,
as they contribute unreservedly to the well being of all
creatures. Just as no needy person ever returns disappointed from
the house of a benevolent individual, similarly do these trees do
for those who approach them for shelter. All of their many
parts - leaves, flowers, fruits, shadow, roots, bark, wood and
fragrance, are useful to others. Indeed, there are many who live
on this earth, but the birth of only those is successful, who, as
far as possible, through their wealth, intellect, speech and
lives, engage in acts conducive to the welfare of others."
(Bhagavata Purana 10.22.32 - 35)
The Mahabharata asks us to embrace even one perceived to be an
enemy, should he arrive at our threshold: 'Should even one's
enemy arrive at the doorstep, he should be attended upon with
respect. A tree does not withdraw its cooling shade even from the
one who has come to cut it.' (12.146.5)
The Bodhichariyavatara, a classic in the world's religious literature, composed by the monk Shantideva (AD 685-763),
describes in verse form the various steps to be taken by the bodhisattva on the path to Buddhahood.
It calls the bodhisattva as one without attachment to specific individuals, but who perceives all creatures with benevolence like a father his son. There is a beautiful passage in the Bhagavata Purana complementing the above ideal:
Man has right over only that much wealth as is enough to satisfy his hunger. He who lays a claim on the surplus is a thief and deserves punishment. One should look upon beasts, camels, donkeys, monkeys, rats, creatures who crawl on the earth (serpents etc), birds and mosquitoes like one's own sons, and these should therefore not be driven out of the house or fields if they enter and begin to eat, for what indeed is the difference between them and his sons? (7.14.8 - 9)
This is perhaps akin to Mahatma Gandhi's concept of trusteeship, where anyone with wealth in excess of his basic needs realizes himself to be only a trustee of his prosperity, and who understands that his continuation in the office depends only on his overseeing that it is judiciously shared amongst all shareholders.
The Bodhichariyavatara takes even a deeper perspective, laying special emphasis on placing oneself in the position of others (par-atma-parivartana), in order to promote selflessness (an-atman) and compassion (karuna): 'Whoever wishes for salvation should practice the supreme mystery - the exchanging of himself and the other.' (8.120)
Governed by this high ideal, such selfless giving does not expect anything in return. It is perhaps only a way of saying thanks to the one god who has created us all in equality. According to Krishna, a sharing which wants its price is but mere shop keeping:
"Those who love only when loved, their whole enterprise is based on selfishness. It is only giving and taking. It is nor a joining of hearts, neither Dharma. This love is just for self-interest and nothing else. Those who show affection to even those who do not reciprocate their love are like parents, full of karuna. Here lies pure and spotless Dharma." (Bhagavata Purana 10.32.17 - 18)
What all these instances suggest is that the sense of giving is not mere alms giving or charity, but a sharing of what one has been given, in the awareness that one's life is connected with other beings. Hospitality is one such expression of this realization, beyond mere ritual etiquette:
Even if he diligently studies the Veda day after day, but fails to welcome his guest, then the life of such a Brahmin is in vain. If one wishes to reap the fruits of ritual rites, then let one attend upon a guest who arrives hungry and thirsty at his doorstep with food and respect. (Mahabharata: 14.92)
Equally important with the act of giving is the attitude, the feeling with which the offerings are made. The word used for ritual giving in Sanskrit, is 'Dana', whose meanings are sharing, communicating, imparting, paying back (as a debt), restoring, and adding to. The ancient tradition of holistic healing, Ayurveda, speaks of four kinds of defects which can afflict cooked food:
1). The Defect of Time (Kala Dosha) - The food that has been kept for too long.
2). The Defect of Flavor (Rasa Dosha) - That which has lost its taste.
3). The Defect of Company (Samsarga Dosha): Touched by unclean hands, or in which some insect has fallen
4). The Defect of Sentiment (Bhava Dosha) - That which is offered with ill grace or without affection. Such a food is not food, it is poison and the worst out of the four categories.
In Buddhist Ethics too, the overall focus is on the psychological aspects of an action, that is, on the intention or volition (chetana) behind it. The Kathavatthu of the Pali Canon holds that Dana is not only the act of giving and gift itself, but the mental state of liberality as well. Thus it is not the absolute size of the gift that is noteworthy, but its proportion out of one's own stock, that characterizes the 'abundance' of a gift.
The story of King Rantideva illustrates one such episode, where
this monarch, having given away all his wealth, fell on to days
of hardship, and had to go even without water for a stretch of
forty-eight days. However, on the morning of the forty-ninth, he
managed to get a meal of rice cooked in butter. As soon as the
family sat down to break their fast, a Brahmin guest arrived, and
the family, visualizing god in everything, received him with
reverence and gave him a share. Before they could partake of the
remaining food, another stranger, this time a Shudra, knocked at
their door. He was also lovingly given a portion of the meal.
After him came a stranger with his dogs, requesting to be fed
along with his hounds. The householder dutifully bowed before the
god arrived in the form of the dogs and their master. Lastly,
only water having remained, that too was asked by for by a
parched Chandala (keeper of funeral grounds). King Rantideva,
observing the latter's plight said: I do not seek from The
Almighty Lord any kind of special powers. I would rather prefer
to dwell in all beings and undergo their sufferings myself,
relieving them of their miseries. By offering water to this
unfortunate person, ally my thirst, exhaustion, distress and
hunger have been quenched." Later, the family was blessed with a
vision (darshan) of the lord himself, who extolled their
sacrifice, which consisted of all they possessed.
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